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DeVos comments on undocumented schoolchildren strike a nerve with Democrats

The Hill logo The Hill 5/24/2018 Rafael Bernal
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Immigration advocates are furious at Education Secretary Betsy DeVos after she told a House panel Tuesday that school officials should determine whether to turn in undocumented students to federal authorities.

"If a principal or a teacher finds out that a certain child is undocumented, or his or her family members are undocumented, we must do whatever it takes to ensure the student's safety and protection from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency," said Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) "I am outraged and highly concerned following comments made by Secretary Betsy DeVos during yesterday's Education and the Workforce Committee hearing."

At the hearing, Espaillat asked DeVos at the hearing whether schools should report undocumented students to federal authorities, to which she responded, "... that's a school decision. It's a local community decision."

Democrats, in response, are holding a press conference Thursday to condemn DeVos's response.

The Trump administration has argued that immigration falls entirely under federal jurisdiction, precluding state and local authorities from being able to choose whether to cooperate with immigration authorities.

DeVos's comments, however, seem to run counter to that policy by seeking to empower school officials to appeal to federal immigration agents.

But a 1982 Supreme Court decision bars public schools from withholding their services based on immigration status.

"It [the ruling] basically said schools are free and public, you don't check documentation, that these are kids and they're entitled to a free public education. And nothing beyond that, it's as explicit as it can be," said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) "There's no nuance, there's no reading between the lines."

DeVos has been a frequent target of criticism since she was nominated for the position, but her response to Espaillat's query drew particularly harsh rebukes.

"Yeah, she's an idiot," Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) said. "It is established case law that you cannot go into our schools and use our schools as an immigration force."

Espaillat piled on to the criticism, saying DeVos's response surprised him, despite his believing it was premeditated.

"She's a little bit wacky," he said. "She was substantively wrong, but I was as surprised at her lack of understanding of this situation - this level of fear that is out there as parents take their kids to school."

"I thought maybe she would say, 'look, you know, schools don't report, you know, children go there to learn,' and stuff like that. And that's not what she said," he added. "I think it was a premeditated answer. I don't think she just got it off the cuff."

Grijalva said DeVos's position is part of the administration's larger political agenda.]

"I think what DeVos was doing was kind of piling on to this whole Trump agenda ... their proxy for race has been immigration, and she just had it out today," said Grijalva. "I think they're all part of the strategy to make race and immigrants part of the wedge issue in these upcoming midterms. There's no question in my mind."

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